The Chorus (Les Choristes, 2004) is a shameless but entertaining entry in the seemingly endless sub-genre about teachers who make great thinkers/artists/musicians/athletes out of a class of delinquents long regarded as lost causes. The picture also goes for the jugular with sentiment lifted whole cloth from Cinema Paradiso (1989), but its central performance goes a long way toward redeeming the picture's less-than-original screenplay.
As with Cinema Paradiso, The Chorus opens on a famous entertainment personality - a film director in the former, a famous conductor here - and in both films he's played by Jacques Perrin. Pierre Morhange (Perrin) receives a call that his mother has died, and after her funeral is visited by Pepinot (Didier Flamand), an old classmate he's not seen in 50-odd years.
Pepinot comes with word that Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), once a prefect at their old boarding school, has willed his journal of that time to Morhange, and as the two men sit down and read it, Mathieu's brief tenure is told in flashback. A failed musician, Mathieu turns to teaching and in 1949, joins the staff at Fond de l'Etang, a dilapidated institution not unlike the one featured in Diabolique (1955). Its headmaster, Rachin (Francois Berleand, recalling Jose Ferrer), is a humorless martinet, a Mr. Bumble lording over his students paddle in hand, a type whose policy is "Action - Reaction": harsh punishment to even the most minor breach of discipline.
As with all pictures of this type, Mathieu's winning of the trust and affection of his students is a long and frustrating uphill battle. But when he forms a chorus, Mathieu sees some of his students coming around, including young Morhange (now played by Jean-Baptiste Maunier), then a gifted soprano but troubled teenager.
The Chorus would be insufferably corny if not for Gerard Jugnot's superbly underplayed performance as the humanist teacher and, to a lesser degree, the script's careful handling of the character. Mathieu isn't charismatic or commanding, but rather an ordinary, middle-aged man (bald, slightly dumpy) with a believable talent for reaching individual kids and leaving a strong, positive impression. Often these films cheat by using melodramatic tragedy as the catalyst that finally wins the kids over, or star power, or gimmicky strategies real teachers would never use.
Mathieu keeps his own emotions in check, and Jugnot's measured reactions come in small, non-showy gestures, like a mildly crooked smile. Thanks to Jugnot we stay interested, watching to see just how he deals with these unruly kids, and how he'll inevitably win them over. Beyond this, the appeal of these movies must be that in them we recognize our own teachers and fellow classmates, and Jugnot's Mathieu is one that's universally recognizable.
The rest of the film is no better than adequate however, with cliched characters and unoriginal scripting. The script's structure, book ended as it is with the same weepy nostalgia from Jacques Perrin (who, with Jugnot co-produced the film), unforgivably apes the far superior Cinema Paradiso.
The headmaster is a particularly ill-conceived, sloppily-written supporting character whose inconsistent behavior has him alternately dictatorial, giddy and foolish like a reformed Scrooge, greedily opportunistic, and apparently mad. A violent bully is, naturally, a beady-eyed redhead (with acne yet), like something out of "Our Gang" (or, more recently, A Christmas Story).
Maybe this genre has run its course, and there's simply no new ground to explore, but The Chorus embraces cliches rather than try to avoid or subvert them.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 'scope (2.35:1 OAR), Disney/Miramax, after their usual endless steam of commercials, presents The Chorus in a clean 16:9 anamorphic transfer up to usual standards. The colors are sharp and varied, and the picture clean and clear. The French only audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, which shows off the now-popular score to good effect. There are subtitle options in both standard and hard-of-hearing English, as well as Spanish. There are no Extra Features.
If you've seen Music from the Heart or Mr. Holland's Opus or, even if you haven't, The Chorus's story will not surprise you, but thanks to Gerard Jugnot's fine performance, it's moderately entertaining, if awfully cliched.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.